I could tell you that Nina Simone was a great and courageous woman. Her music, which always evoked an emotional response, was a natural gift – by age two she was playing hymns without sheet music, and she later became one of the first black women to train as a classical pianist at Julliard. Eventually Nina became so sick of the rampant inequality of American Society that she denounced her homeland and became a nomad, traveling the world before finally settling in Southern France.
I could tell you all of these facts, but without some context, I still wouldn’t truly capture just how significant her words were to the civil rights movement or how passionate she was in her search for truth and justice.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Nina grew up in North Carolina at a time when the struggles over racism in America were reaching their peak. In the early 1950’s, landmark Supreme Court decisions banned segregation in schools and public transportation. Despite this progress, or perhaps because of it, the following decade was turbulent. Across the country, the forces of reaction directed their violence and hatred against those who simply claimed the freedoms this country had pledged to uphold. Non-violent protestors in Southern cities were rounded up by the police and locked in jails. Leaders were assassinated and churches were bombed. Each day, new atrocities replaced the old.
Nina Simone’s music provided the soundtrack for the civil rights movement. With scathing songs like “Mississippi Goddam,” she told the enemies of racial inequality to go straight to hell. At a time when defiance was met with a swift iron hand, Ms. Simone spoke her mind through her music, challenging the system while uplifting her people. Her socially conscious ballads like, “To Be Young Gifted and Black” and “I Wish I Knew How It Felt To Be Free,” reflected the dreams of an oppressed race.
Nina Simone was much more than an arranger and composer who infused her unique talents into the diverse genres of jazz, folk, soul, classical and blues. She was a role model, a leader and a celebrated audacious revolutionary.
Nina Simone died on April 21, 2003 in Carry-le-Rouet, France, at age 70.